LARAMIE — Fourteen black football players at the University of Wyoming had their 1969 season cut short — and the course of their lives changed — when head coach Lloyd Eaton made the controversial decision to kick them off the team.
That’s the part of the story that the members of what’s more commonly known as the Black 14 want people to remember the most. Half a century later, they’re still trying to set the record straight.
It’s part of the reason the largest known contingent of the Black 14 ever assembled on campus since the incident returned to the university this week to participate in UW’s Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr. Days of Dialogue events. Tony Gibson, Ivie Moore, Guillermo Hysaw, John Griffin, Tony McGee and Mel Hamilton returned at the invitation of the school’s Black Student Alliance and university president Laurie Nichols.
The school’s invitation was an ironic twist considering its highest-ranked officials backed Eaton’s decision to dismiss the players after wanting to wear black armbands against BYU in protest of the Mormon church’s now-extinct policy forbidding black men in the priesthood in addition to racist treatment they say they received playing at BYU the year before.
The six former players, some of them wearing black T-shirts with all 14 members listed on the back to commemorate the 50th anniversary, gathered at the university’s law school Friday afternoon to dispel myths about what exactly happened five decades ago. A seventh, Lionel Grimes, planned to attend but a recent illness prevented him from making it to campus.
“You don’t want any BS,” said Griffin, a former receiver. “You want the truth. That’s what we’re talking about.”
The question most of them still get is why they boycotted the BYU game and then quit, neither of which, they all say, actually happened. With Wyoming off to a 4-0 start that vaulted them as high as No. 12 in the national rankings, all 14 players were prepared to play against the Cougars.
But they also wanted to wear the black armbands in protest of the Mormon Church’s policy as well as the treatment they received at BYU the year before, which McGee said included name calling, cheap shots and BYU turning on the sprinklers after the game to get the black players off the field.
“I remember the last game I played there, I went to the referee and told him what was happening,” McGee said. “He told me to shut up and play football. Our coaches never acknowledged we were being treated that way, and their coaches never acknowledged it.”
After meeting among themselves as to how they might want to go about bringing awareness to BYU’s actions both on and off the field, all 14 players decided on the armbands and went to Eaton seeking permission to wear them.
But the group still vividly remembers Eaton stopping the entire group before any of them could ask the question and telling them they were no longer members of the football team.
“Then he told us to get into the stands at the fieldhouse, and he just began berating us,” said McGee, a defensive end who won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins in 1983. “Every time someone wanted to say something, he screamed at them and told them to shut up.”
Said Gibson, “We had decided before in a meeting that if he did not agree with what we wanted to do, we were just going to play the game. If he had said, ‘No way you’re wearing those arm bands,’ that’s fine.”
In initial media interviews following his decision, Eaton, who died in 2007 at the age of 88, insinuated it wasn’t one motivated by race. His reasoning was a violation of a team policy that forbid protests — one that none of the six former players on campus Friday ever recalled Eaton putting in writing or discussing before the incident.
“We hear Coach on an interview saying they refused to play in the game because they couldn’t wear the black armbands,” Hysaw said. “What? Really? What guys were those? It wasn’t us. We were given no choice.”
Said McGee, “We were kicked off for a protest that never happened. We were punished for something that never happened. We were punished for a rule we knew nothing about.”
All but four of the 14 never played college football again while many of them made it a point to stay away from the university. Moore, a defensive back, had returned to campus just once since the incident while Gibson, Hyshaw and McGee had never been back before this week.
Gibson and Hyshaw both said they swore they’d never come back, but time has a way of healing. They’ll never get an answer from Eaton himself as to why he took such swift action before hearing them out, but an invitation to be part of the Days of Dialogue conversation at a place where they used to be muted was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up.
“I need closure,” Hyshaw said. “I still don’t have it, but it’s close.”